Tag Archives: Mario Victoria Vasquez

Ignoring Looming Threats…

The gates opened at 9 am. Rain clouds persisted as a procession with cars of all shapes, colors and models formed. Thunder rumbled in the distance but despite the looming threat overhead, the 3rd annual Hotrod Breakout Car Show/Benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN) was about to begin. Adults and children alike were showing up in modest numbers to experience this unique event designed to create awareness about an issue that devastates families across the country. Rain clouds threatened to ruin our activities but the real threat comes from ignoring situations that ruin lives such as the lasting effects caused by wrongful convictions.

P1040788Triplets with baby sister in tow

A structured program commenced at 10 am. Brenda Kutska spoke first. She shared her family’s personal misfortune of dealing with a wrongful conviction. Her Father-in-law, Keith Kutska was wrongfully convicted along with five other men in 1995 of a murder they did not commit. Keith and four  others have been in prison for twenty years. There was no anger or malice, only hope in Brenda’s tone as she spoke of the many years her family has lived with no expectations of ever seeing freedom for Keith. Her ability to stay positive is due to renewed hope fueled by recent legal help for Keith. Each time Brenda paused to catch her breath, a respectful audience waited. Even as they heard about circumstances many of them could not relate to, their hearts were deeply touched. And after hearing about this type of injustice, something they never considered before, they applauded her candidness.

At 11 am it was time for me to try out a new platform-a 45-minute panel discussion with four exonerees; Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez from Wisconsin, and Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee from Minnesota. Julie Jonas, legal director for the IPMN would join me in introducing our exonerees, along with giving us a sense of what her organization does. There were a few sprinkles of rain in the air, but we proceeded as planned.

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Joan Treppa, exonerees Audrey Edmunds (11)*, Mario Victoria Vasquez (17)*, Mike Hansen (6)*, Koua Fong Lee (3)* and IPMN director Julie Jonas

Julie introduced Mike and Koua; two exonerees whose cases she had worked on. She quickly summed up the lengthy legal processes to free them. I introduced Audrey and Mario. I shared their circumstances and how we had met. We touched on the experiences of all four; the initial crime they were accused of, life in prison, how they found help and what their lives are like now. There was laughter and sadness. There were pleas to stay cognizant that these injustices exists and the importance of supporting organizations like the Innocence Project. Before long, the clouds dispersed and the sun appeared.

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Exonerees Mario Vasquez and Koua Fong Lee 

Following the discussion at approximately 11:55, something unexpected happened. I was leaving the stage when a gentleman approached. He and his wife had been driving by on the highway when they spotted our event. They felt compelled to stop. The husband presented me with a challenge to match all donations raised by 12:15 up to $1,000! He asked that I make an immediate announcement. I signaled to Chuck, our DJ, to pause the music. As I waited I wondered if we’d come close to collecting that amount or if we would lose out on this opportunity. The crowd was small and I had my doubts. But I made the announcement and hoped for the best.

At 12:15 a handful of us counted; $100…$200…$300…and so on all the way up to $1,000 and then some! We had done it and this couple assured us they would be sending a check. Although they wanted to remain anonymous, we couldn’t help but gather around to thank them for their generosity.

P1040808Exoneree Mike Hansen with girlfriend Shaylee and son Keegan

Still excited about our great fortune, I prepared for the second and final panel discussion at 1 pm with Attorney Steve Kaplan and Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski. They were discussing the WI Monfils case. Mike is the only one of six co-defendants (including the previously mentioned Keith Kutska) to be exonerated. Steve has been actively pursuing freedom for Keith for the past two+ years. At the last minute I asked my good friend and colleague Johnny Johnson to join us for this discussion because he is the retired private investigator who aided in compelling Steve to take on this case. I gave a quick case summary and proceeded with the discussion. Mike Pie shared his personal experience as the accused. Steve talked about the legal process of representing Keith. Johnny shared his viewpoint as an outside investigator and explained the proper techniques of interpreting evidence, conducting an investigation and his personal observations about this case. Steve also discussed the recent hearing for Keith in July of 2015 and what to expect in the coming months.

P1040822Joan Treppa, Steve Kaplan, exoneree Mike Piaskowski (5.5)* and Johnny Johnson

Both panel discussions were very informative and eye opening for those who gathered to listen. Both elicited reactions of dismay in regards to our judicial system and empathy towards the victims present that day. I felt that what we were doing was making a difference and helping the victims heal just a little bit more by affording them this opportunity.

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Mario Victoria Vasquez with Julie Jonas and her children Sarah and Sam

Amenities included two food vendors and Jeff Lee of ‘Art For You’. Jeff promised to donate 15% of his earnings that day to our cause. He sold four pictures. Chuck Brost, our DJ for ‘Tunes To Go’ was amazing as always.

P1040810                            Route 65 Pub&Grub

P1040805 Tater Boss Tater Tots

I am pleased to report I received checks from both the couple and from Jeff Lee. I had also received additional personal checks in the mail prior to and after the show. We raised a grand total of $3,080.50 which exceeded last year’s total. We are thankful to General Manager, Sue Stang of Route 65 Classics (which will be renamed Unique Classics on 65 as of September 1st, 2015) for allowing us free access of their facility.

The show ended with numerous awards for the best cars. Plaques and trophies were courtesy of friends, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett. They were handed out by WI exonerees Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez. To truly appreciate this incredible experience you’ll have to come to next year’s show. I hope to see you then…

P1040832                                Top 10 Award  

P1040834 Best in Show Award

* ( ) Total years of sentence each exoneree served.

           

                                                

“Hotrod Breakout”…a Benefit That’s Been Places…

I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the many dedicated people engaged in the planning of a third car show/fundraiser for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Compassionate individuals who’ve supplied hours of enthusiasm and selfless efforts on behalf of those wrongfully convicted have again created an exciting and unusual venue where tragic but uplifting stories emerge. The event is designed to resurrect reluctant voices that have been judged, criticized, condemned and ultimately silenced. Some of those voices appearing at this year’s event are: Wisconsin exonerees Audrey Edmunds, Michael Piaskowski and Mario Victoria Vasquez and Minnesota exonerees Michael Hansen and Koua Fong Lee.

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 Joan Treppa (standing) next to exoneree Audrey Edmunds 

P1040223                                                             Exoneree Michael Piaskowski

P1040684                            Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez next to Johnny’s classic car

Mike HansonExoneree Michael Hansen

Exoneree Koua Fong Leeows_142302270498185

We will also hear from Brenda Kutska whose father-in-law is currently in prison for a crime he did not commit. Her views from the perspective of a family member is sure to stir hearts…

Two years ago we began to highlight the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN). This non-profit organization bridges the financial roadblocks of those innocently caught up in catastrophic legal woes in dire need legal assistance. We’ve combined our talents to create awareness and to solicit funds to further their mission and it is our hope that this event will eventually become a significant source of revenue for them.

P1040786Banner created and donated by Budweiser

I salute my special friends who make up the planning team; Johnny and Linda Johnson, Rosemary and Pat Bonnett, Tom Erikson (aka: EricVonSon), Chuck Brost, Jesse Hoffman and all the others who work with us each year to help make this event a success. Special mentions go to Trudy Baltazar who collected and donated numerous items for prizes given out during the day, the Bonnett’s for their willingness to provide printed programs and the super amazing car awards. We thank Chuck Brost of ‘Tunes To Go’ for keeping us ontrack with our daily schedule, making announcements with added wit between appropriate era music for the event. Let’s not forget our good friend, exoneree Audrey Edmunds, who will again energetically hand out prizes!

P1040230Exoneree Audrey Edmunds congratulating a classic car winner

A final salute goes to the staff at the Project here in Minnesota for the important work they do all year long. Executive Director Heather Ring, Legal Director Julie Jonas, Staff Attorney Marie Wolf and all of the law students and paralegals who make up the IPMN team are to be commended for their diligence and selfless commitment to providing an invaluable service to those less fortunate in their time of need.

Because the IPMN it is a non-profit, our success in aiding them is critical because much of their funding is reliant on funds from general public doners. We must never forget that these funds benefit individuals who’ve been reduced to being labeled as thugs, murderers and rapists, who, in reality, were part of a civilized society, striving for the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They were once independently responsible for their own lives before fate sent them down a much different path.

P1040202Julie Jonas, her daughter and son, Sarah and Sam with MN exoneree Sherman Townsend (from a previous car show)

It is an honor to actively work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and we are again proud to present the one and only… (drum roll) ‘Hotrod and Motorcycle Breakout’; 3rd annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project! We are furiously getting ready to host this exciting event on Saturday, August 8th 2015 from 9 am to 3 pm. We’ve adjusted our schedule a bit this year. Instead of conducting single speeches by exonerees and advocates, we are inserting two panel discussions; one at 11 am and the other at 1 pm. We believe this format will provide an informative and educated interaction for our audience.

 

Car Show Flyer - 2015

Flyers distrubuted at other car shows

Finally, I would like to commend Route 65 Pub and Grub owner Brad Slawson and Manager Kathy Sauvageau for providing mouth-watering refreshments during the day and Route 65 Classics (under new ownership as Unique Classics) owner Gene Kohler and General Manager Sue Stang who’ve enthusiastically provided their space free of charge each year. Both businesses have made generously donated additional funds to our cause and both are already getting ready for our big day!

P1040472Kathy and Brad setting up their booth 

We hope this event will be especially successful this year and that it will go down in history as the best car show ever…one that will help drive this wrongful conviction issue back into nonexistence!

Please join us or donate to the IPMN today!

Thanks!

 

 

A New Chapter…

Meeting someone who’s been in prison for a crime they did not commit is very humbling. But observing within them, an attitude more positive than many of us not affected by our judicial system, is surprising…and noteworthy. Mario Victoria Vasquez is such a person. He is conscientious, thoughtful, kind, patient and grateful for his new found freedom and for the outpouring of support he has received through his terrifying ordeal. Mario is also proud. He harbors anger because of what happened to him but he does not let it dominate his overall temperament despite these past circumstances…

“On February 5, 1998, the parents of a four-year-old girl took her to the St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green bay, WI because she had been complaining for two days of pain while urinating. The girl told a nurse that “Mario” had touched her. Based on a physical examination which revealed sores and vaginal irritation, hospital staff determined the girl had been sexually assaulted. A swab was taken and tested positive for genital herpes. The girl’s mother believed she was referring to 34-year-old Mario Victoria Vasquez, the babysitter’s brother-in-law who lived at the babysitter’s house. However, the uncle had disclosed to authorities that the girl sometimes referred to him (the uncle) as “Mario”. A Green Bay Police Detective questioned the girl alone. According to him, she volunteered that she had been touched by her uncle, father and babysitter’s husband as well, but on February 6, 1998, Vasquez was the one arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault of a minor. Tests were never performed to determine where the disease originated from and the defense counsel was negligent in requesting that an expert be called in to debate; (a) the validity of the testimony of a four-year-old; (b) her obvious confusion of the facts throughout the process, (c) evidence of interviewer bias.  

Mario had served close to seventeen years of his twenty-year sentence, all the while, maintaining his innocence. He was unexpectedly released from prison on the evening of Friday, January 30th, 2015 after a hearing earlier that day to request a new trial. The assault victim, now an adult, had finally come forward to disclose who her true assailants were.

Although this was reason enough for Mario to celebrate, the circumstances surrounding his actual release were not. Mario walked out of the Brown County jail in the middle of a chilly wintry night…alone. He was equipped with inadequate clothing–a light jacket, no hat or gloves, and no means to contact a family member to pick him up. He was forced to go back into the jail to ask if he could use their phone. It was sheer luck that he remembered his son James’ phone number.

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Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez and Joan Treppa

Up until the present, I had only known Mario through letters. We had corresponded since August of 2013 because of a conversation I had with his ex-wife, Darcy. Both Darcy and my sister Clare live in Green Bay and were friends at the time. Darcy became upset one day while the three of us chatted at my sister’s house and I brought up my recent involvement in the Monfils case. “I cannot be concerned over that case when no one cares that my ex-husband Mario also sits in prison for a crime he did not commit.” she said. “Tell me about him,” I said. Our conversation prompted me to start writing to Mario.

I told my sidekick, Johnny about this case and he did an investigative evaluation of the facts. He confirmed that Mario’s case was fraught with the same kinds of issues and inconsistencies as the Monfils case and we found out that the same prosecutor and assistant DA worked on both cases within a few years of each other which sent up red flags. Mario was already under the guise of the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) by then and though he felt discouraged because of how long it was taking to get his case through the courts, I encouraged him to give them time. I assured him that they were doing their best for him.

The essence of Mario’s letters embodied the utmost respect. He struck me as an educated and well versed individual. I sensed he was hard working and motivated to continue on with a productive and meaningful life. He had maintained integrity despite his misfortune. His letters were similar to reading poetry. In them, he shared acts of kindness toward other inmates through mentoring and friendship. The more I learned, the more I looked forward to eventually meeting him. 

Then on the evening of Tuesday, February 10, 2015, I came face to face with my pen pal. For a moment, Mario and I stood there, staring at each other as though this was a dream. We marveled at the ability to share a handshake, a joke, laughter, tears and a hug. Still, Mario’s fate hung in the balance. There was a hearing the following day to determine whether or not this nightmare was over. Although I was optimistic, Mario would not be at peace until he received word from the Judge that he was absolved of all charges. There was an edginess in his temperament. I did my best to grasp what he was feeling and I reassured him that no matter what, I would stand by him.

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A Family Reunited; Darcy, James and Mario

My sister Clare hosted this gathering of close friends and family on Tuesday evening. Darcy, their son James and James’ girlfriend, Sarah, were present. It was the first time this family had been together since Mario was charged in 1998. We all savored the moment…that evening…this miracle.

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Exonerees Mario and Mike “Pie”

We had also invited Michael “Pie” Piaskowski, the exoneree from the Monfils case, along with his girlfriend, Teresa. Mike Pie and Mario became fast friends. They sat together, sharing individual stories. Many emotions were felt that evening; anger, sadness and disgust for a system gone awry. But we focused mainly on new possibilities and an optimistic future for Mario, Mike Pie and for the many innocent people in prison who have yet to be vindicated.

WIP attorney's Cristina, Katie, Kyle and Curtiss

Mario (center) with WIP Attorneys; Cristina, Catie, Kyle and Curtis

The next day, the hearing for Mario commenced at 1:30 pm in room 200 of the Brown County Courthouse. Cristina, Mario’s lead attorney from the WIP had mentioned that the proceedings would be brief so we arrived early. Mike Pie, Clare, Darcy and I waited in the hallway with approximately 25 of Mario’s family members. Excitement grew when the innocence project team walked in. Their presence lent a sense of comfort and excitement similar to the climax of a tense western film when the cavalry rides in to save the day! Mario was ecstatic to see all of us. This was his moment. We were his bravado!

We all entered the small courtroom. We sat and waited. In walked the former Brown County Assistant District Attorney, Larry Lasee, with a sour look on his face. He kept his gaze lowered as he sat in his designated chair and began scribbling furiously on the notepad in front of him. We rose and settled in again after Judge Hammer entered. Cristina rose and began by defending Mario’s innocence. Mr. Lasee clarified his view in regard to Mario’s absolute guilt. He then added that the DA’s office would not be pursuing a new trial in this matter. The Judge displayed a puzzled look and defined the series of events prompting this hearing-that Mr. Lasee had, in fact, interviewed the witness, now an adult, who disclosed the true identities of the perpetrators. I could not make out the muffled response by Mr. Lasee but I had heard all I needed to. It was clear. There would be no more prison time for Mario. He would be free to rebuild his life.

The last thing we heard was what we, as supporters, had hoped for. The Judge looked at Mario and said,”Mr. Vasquez, you are free to go.” We clapped loudly as Lasee quickly found his way to the door. Now it was time to focus on Mario’s transition. It was exhilarating to think that what had started on paper for the two of us was about to continue on with a new chapter in living…

Find a detailed description of Mario’s story here: